Baptism for the Dead: Discerning Historical Precedent from Mere Prose

Article: JAI015 | By Steve Bright

Bright, Steve-BaptismDead

This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 29, number 6 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

There have been instances in which the Christian church has built a doctrine or practice on some historical account recorded in the New Testament. It historically has viewed the accounts in Acts of the water baptism (e.g., 2:41; 8:12, 36; 10:47–48) and regular gathering (e.g., 20:7; cf. Heb. 10:25) of believers, for example, as setting a precedent for Christian doctrine and practice.

A group is on shaky ground, however, when it bases a doctrine or practice on an obscure or isolated statement or an incidental historical detail that is mentioned in a biblical passage. There are groups, for instance, that cite Paul’s surviving a snake bite in Acts 28 as a precedent for Christians to handle snakes.

Latter‐day Saints (LDS, Mormons), likewise, point to Paul’s mention of the practice of “baptism for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29 as a historical precedent for their doctrine and practice of baptism by proxy (i.e., by authorized substitute). They believe that a person cannot attain salvation without water baptism. They also believe that a living believer may be baptized on behalf of an unbaptized dead person so that the dead person might attain salvation.1 In Doctrines of Salvation they explain, “Water baptism is an element of this world, and how could spirits be baptized in it…? The only way it can be done is vicariously, someone who is living acting as a substitute for the dead.”2

This raises a question: if Christians accept the instances of baptism mentioned in Acts as precedent for their doctrine and practice of water baptism of believers, then are Mormons correct to accept the baptism mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15 as precedent for their doctrine and practice of baptism by proxy? Let’s look at this passage in its context and in light of several factors that help us to answer this question.

The Context. The church that Paul had planted in Corinth (Acts 18) was made up of mostly Gentiles. It was full of life, but it lacked spiritual maturity and retained some of the views and ways of the pagan culture that surrounded it. Paul had received reports of problems within the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 1:11) and his lengthy first letter to it was intended to correct and instruct its people on a number of issues of Christian doctrine and practice.

In chapter 15 Paul indicates that he had heard that some people in the church were denying the resurrection of the dead (v. 12); he then argues that the resurrection of Jesus, which was confirmed by eyewitnesses, guarantees the resurrection of the dead. He points out a series of conclusions that follow logically from the claim that the dead are not raised: if the dead are not raised, then Christ was not raised (v. 13), the apostles’ preaching and the Corinthians’ faith is vain (v. 14), the apostle’s witness that God raised Christ from the dead is false (v. 15), (again) Christ was not raised (v. 16), (again) the Corinthians’ faith is worthless and they remain in their sins (v. 17), dead believers have perished forever (v. 18), those who hope in Christ for resurrection are to be pitied (v. 19), those who are baptized for the dead do so in vain (v. 29), Paul puts himself in danger for the gospel for no reason (v. 30), Paul’s battle against wild beasts (his enemies?) was useless (v. 32), and there is nothing left but the gratification of appetites (v. 32). In the remainder of the chapter he explains the nature of the resurrected body and believers’ victory over death (vv. 35–58).

Paul here uses what is known in logic as an argument to absurdity. In other words, if we follow a claim to its logical conclusion, and that conclusion is absurd (or false), then the claim must be false. He argues that if the claim that the dead are not raised is true, then a number of conclusions follow logically; but those conclusions are false, which means the claim itself must be false. He appeals to a series of beliefs and practices that the Corinthian believers already accept as true in order to show them that the conclusions he lists are false. For example, for the Corinthians to recognize that the conclusion Christ was not raised is false, they must already believe Christ was raised. This is true of each of the items he lists, including baptism for the dead. Understanding Paul’s argument here will help us to understand this passage better, as we will see below.

The Doctrine. The Mormon doctrine of baptism by proxy presumes that baptism is required for salvation, and that those who die without baptism and therefore without salvation may still be saved if someone living is baptized on their behalf. Numerous other biblical passages on the subject of salvation, however, contradict these presumptions. The Bible says that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8–9), apart from baptism. John, for example, cites belief as the only condition for salvation (e.g., John 1:12; 3:16; 20:31), Luke records several instances of people who believed before being baptized (Acts 2:41; 10:47), and Paul separates baptism from the gospel that saves (1 Cor. 1:17).

It also says that after death comes judgment (Heb. 9:27), not another opportunity to be saved. Since God’s word cannot contradict itself, one thing we can be sure of is that Paul was not advocating the Mormon doctrine of baptism by proxy. This does not, however, answer the question of what practice Paul was actually referring to and whether he was actually advocating it, so let’s examine the practice.

The Practice. No other biblical passages besides 1 Corinthians 15:29 even mention the practice of baptism for the dead, so we must discover what it means from the passage itself or from sources outside the Bible. Scholars have proposed as many as 40 different interpretations of what practice Paul was referring to in this passage. None of them are without problems.

For example, some interpreters observe that Paul uses the pronouns “we” and “you” in his entire argument in this passage, except when he says “they” baptize for the dead. They say that this change of pronoun suggests that Paul was referring to a group among the Corinthians who were engaging in this aberrant practice. In this view, Paul did not need to condemn this practice explicitly as he did other errors because it was so obviously wrong; rather, he assumed the false practice simply to make a point. He was saying, in essence, “If the dead are not raised, then even the (false) practice of baptism for the dead that ‘they’ engage in is absurd.”

The problem with this view is that if Paul assumed this false practice to make a point, then it is the only false item in a list of such fundamental truths as the resurrection of Christ, the hope of the believer, and the purpose of Paul’s ministry. This sort of rhetorical move on Paul’s part would be out of place with his explicit purpose in the letter to correct false doctrines and practices among the Corinthians. It is more likely that Paul would correct them on this matter rather than assume it to be true for the sake of his argument.

Other interpreters believe that baptism for the dead was a practice that Paul approved or at least allowed. Some of them suggest, for example, that the phrase refers to the baptism of new believers who replaced those church members who had died. Others propose that it refers to the baptism of persons who had become believers and had been baptized in response to the pleas of loved ones who had died. Still others suggest that “for the dead” refers metaphorically to the baptized believer’s own death and resurrection.

The problem with these views is that they do not adequately account for Paul’s use of “they,” which singled out those who baptized for the dead, rather than “you,” if the Corinthians generally accepted the practice, or “we,” if he also approved of it. The phrase “the dead,” moreover, cannot be a metaphorical reference, such as to “the spiritually dead” or “one’s future dead body,” since that would provide no support for his argument for a physical resurrection.

There are nonbiblical references to a practice of vicarious baptism for the dead among later heretical groups, including some Corinthian sects, but the text of 1 Corinthians 15:29 is simply too vague to be identified with any of them. We are left, unfortunately, with only educated guesses as to what this practice might have been, and as such this passage provides no support for dogmatic arguments one way or the other.

The Precedent. The general principle here is that we cannot treat an incidental historical detail as an intentional historical precedent without adequate textual support. In other words, to consider any text to be set precedent rather than mere prose, we must be able to demonstrate from the text that the author intended it to be so. This cannot be done, however, with the practice mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Paul’s explicit intent was to argue against the claim that the dead are not raised (i.e., to prove logically that the dead are raised), not to teach about the practice of baptism for the dead, whatever it means. Paul’s mention of the practice, then, is incidental to his argument. This does not mean that baptism for the dead still might not be acceptable, but this text is insufficient support for saying that it is, especially since no other biblical passages even mention the practice.

The fact that Paul does not explicitly condemn the practice of baptism for the dead also allows for the possibility that he permitted or even approved of it, although the practice he mentions, as previously discussed, cannot be baptism by proxy as the Mormons understand it. This possibility alone is not a sufficient biblical reason to view baptism for the dead (whatever it means) as a precedent for all believers to follow, as is the case with believers’ baptism derived from accounts in Acts.

Discerning historical precedent from mere prose is one of the most difficult aspects of interpretation, which is why we must always have a solid textual foundation on which to base our conclusions in this regard. If we assume more than the text actually supports we risk adding to the word of God.

Steve Bright holds an M.A. from Southern Evangelical Seminary and is associate editor of the Christian Research Journal.


 

NOTES

  1. See Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‐day Saints 128:12–18, http://scriptures.lds.org/en/dc/128. It should be noted that the LDS doctrine of salvation is different than the orthodox Christian doctrine of salvation.
  2. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1975), 2:141. This practice is one reason the LDS Church researches and maintains copious genealogical records.

One Response to Baptism for the Dead: Discerning Historical Precedent from Mere Prose

  1. Malcolm says:

    Thank you for your views on the topic of baptism for the dead. I only have one concern. You mention that salvation is by faith alone but the only place I find anything similar to faith alone is in James 2:24 which says, “You see them that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” Or earlier when he says “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” There is ample evidence in the scriptures that show that faith MUST lead to action. See Hebrews chapter 11.

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